A: No. Rhiannon’s stepmom situation is very different from mine. That said, I have personally experienced many of the same feelings, particularly those associated with being a childless stepmother with 50/50 custody. I have also spent an abundance of glorious hours hanging with stepmoms and hearing/reading their stories, so I feel pretty informed about the whole stepmom deal and the common feelings and experiences that crop up.
Q: Is there a real-life Society of Stepmothers?
A: More or less! This book is dedicated to my stepmom friends, both in person and online, who serve the same life-saving function as the Society of Stepmothers.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: Um. Ages. I think I started in 2007. The novel is technically set in 2008-2009 (yes, I made sure the events of the story and custody schedule align with an actual calendar, just because I am weird and didn’t like the idea that the story could not be grounded in real life).
Q: Are the books based in the San Francisco Bay Area? Why?
A: The books are based here, but only loosely. Ultimately I felt that my writing had to be grounded in a particular “culture” in order to be as authentic as possible, but my overall purpose is to connect with stepmoms anywhere in the world.
Q: Who’s going to be the main character of book two?
Chocolate croissants are good. S’more croissants are way better.
1 plain croissant
Fresh raspberries to taste
Cut croissant lengthwise, making the bottom half thinner than the top half. Arrange the chocolate on the bottom half of the croissant and melt. Happily, the butter in the pastry will keep it from burning. Roast the marshmallow. Once the chocolate has melted, remove croissant from heat and press raspberries into the chocolate. Top with roasted marshmallow and the top half of the croissant.
Mint lovers, start melting! This mint medley features velvety Andes mints and a crispy mint cookie.
3 to 4 Andes mints
1/2 graham cracker
1 crispy mint cookie (Thin Mint, Mint Oreo, Mint Brussels, etc.)
Unwrap mints and melt them on the graham cracker (see page 10). Roast the marshmallow. Once the chocolate has melted, remove graham cracker from the heat and top with roasted marshmallow and mint cookie.
Note: The Andes mint is the nobility of the mint world. With its creamy consistency, high meltability, and luscious flavor, the Andes mint can be incorporated into almost any s’more for unbelievable results. For a stronger flavor of fresh peppermint, swap out the Andes mints for two squares of a delicious After Eight candy bar.
p.s. After I wrote and published this recipe, the Pepperidge Farm people stopped making Mint Brussels, which was my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE mint cookie. I kinda feel like this s’more will never be the same. Why is the universe so CRUEL?
The book never did hit the big time, but we had fun appearing on BookTV (much to our surprise) and radio shows. We also got a few nice reviews.
In each chapter, the authors examine seemingly disparate works and present insightful conclusions regarding the common thematic threads that resonate with American readers… The sidebars, including a song parody based on John Grisham’s The King of Torts, are especially precious. However, the authors clearly take their subject matter seriously, presenting a sobering analysis of the self-limiting literary choices Americans continue to make.
William R. Drew, Editor, www.beneaththecover.com Why We Read What We Read is a fun-spirited, charming, witty look at bestsellers of the last sixteen years… it’s full of insight and entertainment, a veritable cornucopia of “instruction and delight,” as the NeoClassicists would say. Best book I’ve ever read on bestsellers. It ought to become a bestseller itself–and for all the right reasons! [Editor’s note: We totally agree.]
Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor, Bookpleasures Why We Read What We Read is comprehensive but never wearisome, analytical but never pedantic. Adams and Heath have an excellent grasp of the complexities of the subject matter and their analysis is certainly not bland but rather interesting and informative. Approached with an open mind, and perhaps with a grain of salt, this book achieves its ultimate goal; it forces people to think about the bestsellers in relation to current values, desires, and fears of Americans.
Lisa Ekus Group
Frequent flashes of humor and equally revealing sober insight make this thorough (and energetic, not exhausting) review into a page turner. Heath and Adams cover bestsellers from 1990 thru 2005, and span topics as diverse as Harry Potter and Barak Obama. They conclude with a sound wake-up call to reader, writer, and the publishing industry. Not to be missed.
“The American Culture Behind the Bestsellers: An Examination of Readers’ Perspectives” BookTV
Feshy has definitely been a long time coming. I started writing a simpler form of the book, originally called Feshy’s Paradise, in 1999. Though that draft was the elementary age novel I wanted to write, the annoyingly thematic side of me wasn’t satisfied. I then completely rewrote the book, incorporating the plotlines involving Lingo and the “firstborn flop” concept. The finished book is far more complex than the original—and will no doubt appeal primarily to the more cerebral and/or mature of my youthful readers!
Holidays on Ice has become one of my favorite holiday traditions. I have an uncanny ability to unintentionally pick up books about war and torture, which is problematic enough during the rest of the year, but around the holidays I’m just not in the mood. Nor, however, do I want to read sappy crap about puppies that save people’s marriages or other lame-ass Christmas miracles. Holidays on Ice always fits the bill.
It’s a collection of David Sedaris’s holiday-themed short stories, many (all?) of which are plucked from his other books. Anyone who’s ever barfed over a Christmas letter will delight in the parody “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” And anyone who’s suffered through an elementary school production of any kind will find a kindred spirit in “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol.” But my favorite story of all is “SantaLand Diaries,” Sedaris’s hilarious reflections on the winter he spent working as a mall elf.
So, while I will always encourage you to buy one of my books to give to everyone on your list, you really can’t go wrong with this one either. Whatever you read, boycott torture for the season. Happy holidays!
Like a lot of nerdy and ungainly girls, I went through a Tom Robbins phase in high school. His playful love of women appealed to us earnest and hopeful types.
Then I got sick of his writing style and abandoned him completely for 20 years.
So when my book club picked Jitterbug Perfume for its next selection, I was looking forward to revisiting my old friend—though I was slightly worried that the pages might engulf me back into some tedious adolescent throes.
I needn’t have worried. I found Tom Robbins to be as enjoyable as ever, and nothing about his work compelled me to gnash my teeth and write bad poetry.
Story: Ancient Bohemian king Alobar escapes certain cultish death and sets off on a mission to extend his life indefinitely, accompanied by suttee escapee and love interest Kudra. Also, modern-day perfumers battle it out to recreate a mesmerizing scent that will earn them eternal fragrance fame.
Themes: Perfume, immortality, and beets. Yep, you read that right.
Writing: This book’s themes are compelling, but people really read Robbins for his writing. And it is good—very good—intricate and witty like few other authors out there. His sense of humor, in fact, is the closest to my husband’s I’ve ever encountered on this earth—though (rather like my husband’s punny episodes) it is relentless, best in smaller doses. By the end of Jitterbug Perfume I definitely needed a break.
Best thing about it: Alobar’s journey is captivating from the first pages.
Worst thing about it: The modern-day characters are never fully developed. They feel more like distractions from the main plot.
Story: In the 1960s, the southeastern provinces of Nigeria attempted to secede and form an independent nation called Biafra. Adichie tells the story of this civil war through the experiences of five characters: a professor who passionately supports the revolution; a teenage houseboy from a rural village; a British transplant who’s fallen in love with Nigeria; and upper-class twin sisters with a stormy relationship.
Writing: Literary but totally accessible. The story is told in third person and switches back and forth between the various characters’ perspectives. The structure is clever—the book starts in the early 1960s, moves to the late 1960s, and then switches back to the early 1960s before finishing with the late 1960s—enabling Adichie to drive readers into a frenzy of curiosity when she hints at “missing” events throughout the middle of the book.
Best thing about it: Half of a Yellow Sun has a great balance of character and plot. Adichie brings the true events of the revolution to life through well-drawn, likable characters. And the creative structure really keeps you guessing.
Worst thing about it: I got nothing. It’s a good read and a beautiful tribute to Adichie’s own family members who lived through the conflict.
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Narrated by Steve Martin
I know this is probably incredible for a person who, like, reads all the time and writes stupid book reviews, but I think this was the first biography I’ve ever read! I just…don’t really care about the lives of famous people. So there it is. But this one was relatively interesting and very short. If you’re looking for a good starter biography, you might want to check this one out.
Story: Steve Martin reflects on his years (and years and years) trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. Martin details all the hard work, all the failures, all the practice, all the mean reviews—and then all the humongous success. This isn’t the story of Martin’s whole life, just his childhood and his years doing stand-up. His life in the 80s and beyond remains a mystery.
Writing: I know what you’re thinking—this book is going to be hilarious! Well, you’d be wrong. This isn’t a book of comedy; it’s a book about comedy, and the life of a person who’s famous for it. Martin is certainly a competent writer and a smart dude, but if you’re looking for knee-slappers, this is not the book for you.
Themes: Damn, it’s hard trying to make it as an artist. And when you actually do, it’s overrated.
Best thing about it: It’s always good to remember that even the most famous among us had to work their tails off for decades to get where they are. And it’s good to remember that success is a mixed bag.
I really enjoyed hearing about Martin’s adventures in California, since I know the places. And, as weird as this sounds, I was able to confirm that my husband’s pronunciation of Knotts Berry Farm is probably right, since Martin says it the same way.
Worst thing about it: Because the book is driven by an actual life, it can lack shape; there are times it feels like just a list of places and people. And, well, it would have been better if it were funny.
Audiobook insights: Definitely get the audiobook. It’s cool to hear a book narrated by a voice you know and a person you can picture. And it takes the edge off some of the boring parts.
Final thoughts: This has nothing to do with my book review, but my husband thinks he performed the same night as pre-fame Martin at a Pasadena comedy club back in the 70s. Pretty cool, no?
I’m going to tell you the plain truth: This book was so depressing that it took me two years to read. And I actually like depressing books. So suck on that for a while.
Even so, I actually kind of love it. I appreciate its greatness. I appreciate its anger and honesty. I appreciate that a book like this, if published today, would probably be read by about half a thousand critics and six readers, each of whom would write a useless strongly-worded letter to some farming authority. Meanwhile Steinbeck, the lucky dog, gets to punish high school students throughout eternity with the bleakest tale of western migration ever told.
But here are the juicy details.
Setting: Oklahoma to California in the 1930s.
Story: Victims of changing practices in the farming industry, the members of the voluminous Joad family have been cast off their Oklahoma land. So they head out to California, where they’ve been told they’ll find work a-plenty, pickin’ peaches and baskin’ in the sun. Then all the bad things in the world happen.
Writing: The majority of the story is told from the perspectives of various family members and is thus written in “Okie” dialect. This, as authentic as it surely is, can get really annoying. However, Steinbeck incorporates these interludes in his own language that are magically beautiful.
Themes: This is really an ultimate man vs. The Man kind of story—a family simply trying to scrape by with a little dignity, beaten down at every turn by a system that is both nonsensical and inhumane.
But what’s the deal, you wonder, with the “grapes of wrath”? It really sounds like some freaky Stephen King plot where the grapes fling themselves off the vines and burrow into people’s eyeballs. I drove all through California last weekend and could not stop staring at all those creepy little buggers on the hillsides.
But that, it turns out, is not the meaning at all. The book’s thematic climax spells it out:
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the foot must rot, must be forced to rot.
“The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
So relax. You don’t need to be afraid of the grapes. Unless you are of course The Man, and then the people are coming for you.
Best thing about it: This is an important book. It just is. You can tell when you read it, even when you hate it.
Worst thing about it: Well, you know. It’s really freaking depressing.
Final thoughts: You should probably read it. I’m just sayin’.
Okay, I love my Kindle, but there is just one little problem with it that only major snobs like yours truly will appreciate: it doesn’t really let you see the covers, so you can’t exactly figure out what genre you are considering.
Thus me purchasing The Island.
Yes, I did read the sample, and that should have delivered a healthy dose of caveat emptor. But it didn’t (my brain was addled by vacation; I was trying to find something light; the sample mentioned weddings; I just went for it). And then I was stuck with incredibly lengthy chick lit that I was too, er, tenacious to stop reading.
Let me be clear, though: this isn’t a bad book. It’s just kind of a pointless one, and very long for a book that has neither a thrills-a-minute plot nor thematic depth. I thought chick lit was supposed to be short and sweet, maybe even funny and charming, but The Island is fairly serious. To me it’s lying in limbo, somewhere between a beach read and a literary novel.
Setting: Modern-day Tuckernuck, an ultra-rustic island off of Nantucket.
Story: Mom, two daughters, and aunt spend a month together at their family’s vacation home on a remote island. Each is dealing with a relationship issue: a divorce; a broken engagement; a dead husband and potential lesbian lover; and a lifelong crush that hasn’t materialized. Each woman must work through her issues, past and present, with her love interest(s) and her female relations.
Themes: Sibling rivalry; the nature of love; guilt and forgiveness.
Writing: It’s fine. Nothing that will knock your socks off, but nothing bad either. It’s just really long. (Have I mentioned that?)
Best thing about it: Lesbians?
Worst thing about it: It’s just doesn’t have enough depth for a novel that is all about feelings and relationships. And it has a ridiculously unbelievable stepmom sub-plot that had me rolling my eyes.
Final thoughts: The Island would probably make a satisfying beach read for many women, but I just wasn’t one of them.
Story: Judd is a sad sack. He’s been dumped, humiliated, and stripped of employment. Needless to say, he’s at an all-time low—and his father has the gall to make it even worse by dying…and then requesting that his wife and four children all sit shiva. So back to his parents’ house Judd goes, hanging out with his dysfunctional family for a week as he mourns the loss of his father, his wife, and the life he thought he had in the bag.
Writing: This is where Tropper really shines. Despite the depressing subject matter, the book is a quick and witty read, with great comic phrasing and characterization. This is ugly real life in all its hilarious glory, and I’m all over that shizzle.
Yeah, I said shizzle.
Themes: No one gets the life s/he expected. Terrible things happen, people get old and lumpy, and you make the best of what you’ve got. The book really explores the meaning of family relationships—what it is to be a child, a sibling, a spouse, a parent—and all the fine twisted love and torture that lie therein.
Yeah, I said therein.
Best thing about it: Writing!
Worst thing about it: I can’t really say without revealing too much about the plot, but there’s something that happens near the end that I find all too convenient.
Final thoughts: One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while.
Story: Okay, I’m going to go along with the book’s marketing team on this one—I can’t really tell you. But the fulcrum of the story involves a British couple, two Nigerian teenagers, and a horrific event on a Nigerian beach that—you know—changes their lives forever.
Writing: The narrative switches between the first-person perspectives of Sarah (the British woman) and Little Bee (one of the Nigerian teenagers). Little Bee’s language is especially entertaining and rhythmic, though at first I thought it was a little patronizing.
Themes: Some pretty heavy stuff underpins this novel: immigration and the treatment of refugees; globalization and its human cost; the meaning and impact of self-sacrifice; what makes a life worth living (or not). It’s meaty, man.
Best thing about it: Interesting plot and Little Bee’s perspective.
Worst thing about it: I found Sarah a bit tedious and her son a lot tedious.
Final thoughts: A good choice for book clubs. You can all ask each other what you would do during the big secret event that I can’t tell you about.
Okay, so you know how sometimes you just never read a classic book for years and years—because even as an English major you can’t possibly read all of them in college—and then you finally get around to it and you realize that it is some missing piece of your soul that has finally come home to rest?
Well, this wasn’t one of those times. It’s true that I managed not to read Heart of Darkness till now, but I kinda wish it had stayed that way. It’s one of those books that skates by on its historical significance and once-revolutionary themes, so no one bothers to mention the totally crappy storytelling.
John and I read this for our own personal book club, and basically spent the entire discussion complaining about it and tallying up all the things we wished Conrad would have done instead.
But let’s break it down.
Setting: Late 19th century, England and the Congo
Story: Naive English dude becomes a ferry-boat captain headed to the Congo. He is charged with 1) transporting ivory, and 2) picking up a guy named Kurtz, who is some fiendishly successful ivory trader who needs to be returned to civilization. Kurtz is a genius, they say, but seems to be dabbling in some shady practices.
Themes: As good little 19th century Brits, we all know that the “heart of darkness” refers to the jungle itself, the black-skinned heathens who live there. Or does it? Could it be that raping the African land in the name of Christianizing the savages is not such a pure motive after all, that true darkness perhaps germinates in the human soul?
Writing: I have no complaints with Conrad’s style. It’s the freaking plot and structure.
First, the whole thing is a frame story, which as far as I can tell has no function except to jolt the reader out of the story periodically for no good reason. But the main problem is that the book fails to deliver the goods. Conrad piques our interest for pages and pages about this Kurtz fellow. All the characters go on at length about his persuasive methods, his amazing speeches, his heroic proportions. And Conrad never shows us, never tells us, never gives us any satisfying details about who Kurtz actually is or what Kurtz actually does. I walked away from this book with literary blue balls, and I’m still angry about it.
Best thing about it: It’s short.
Worst thing about it: See “writing” above.
Final thoughts: Watch Apocalypse Now instead. It’s actually supposed to be an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, though from what I understand (I’ve only seen the big famous scene with the Wagner) it actually has a good plot.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Setting: Los Angeles in the 1960s
Story: Gay English professor George has just lost his longtime partner. We follow him through the aftermath of the event and his silent, secret grief.
Themes: The feeling of isolation even when surrounded by others. As a gay man, a Brit, a professor, a man of a certain age, George moves through a heavily populated world in which he constantly stands apart.
Writing: Literary. This is a character study of the truest sort, an intimate step-into-my-brain kind of adventure.
Best thing about it: Hollywood has glutted our hearts and minds with jolly, fabulous gay men. It’s refreshing to see an old gay grump.
Worst thing about it: I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason, but this book just never totally seized me as I wished it would.
Audiobook insights: Narrator Simon Prebble captures George’s bitter outlook with the perfect sardonic tone.
Final thoughts: If you like character studies, A Single Man is totally solid. Those looking for a zippier plot should look elsewhere.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Narrated by Jonathan Davis
Setting: 1950s Barcelona
Story: When protagonist Daniel is just a child, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books—a vast and secret library where books in danger of extinction live for all time. (Book nerds, start salivating!) Daniel’s mission there is to choose one special book whose existence he will protect for life.
Daniel sets out to investigate his chosen tome and stumbles upon a mystery—what happened to the book’s disturbed, talented, and wildly unsuccessful author? And why is someone seeking out and burning all his books? Along with Fermín, a hilarious friend and self-described ladies’ man, Daniel sets out to uncover the author’s secrets and stop his work from being destroyed.
Writing: Quite readable with some literary flair. (It’s a translation, however, so I can’t comment on the original.)
Best thing about it: Fermín is just a great character who lends some wonderful levity to the book. His relationship with Daniel is touching and three-dimensional—not the usual fare. I also love that the mysterious author is amazingly gifted, yet can’t sell a novel to save his life!
Worst thing about it: Shockingly, I can’t think of anything to complain about.
Audiobook insights: Highly recommended. Davis is a genius at distinguishing the characters from one another, especially in bringing Fermín to life.
Final thoughts: This literary mystery and coming-of-age story is a great read.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Narrated by Humphrey Bower
Well, it turns out that India is not merely a land of funtime singalongs. If you’re dying to delve into the underbelly of Bombay in the 80s, slums and black markets and more, Shantaram is the book for you. It’s a world I knew nothing about, described by a tour guide who’s really been there: Gregory David Roberts, the Australian robber and prison escapee who based much of this novel on his own life.
Story: A man on the run has to start from scratch. And so we meet our protagonist, Lin, during his first hours on Indian soil. He must make friends, learn the languages, and forge a new life for himself in a teeming, complex city he soon comes to love. Rural villages, Bombay slums, brothels, lice-infested prisons, Bollywood movie sets, and Afghan mountainsides all serve as backdrops for Lin’s many adventures, both criminal and philanthropic. And a love story captivates throughout.
Writing: Mostly straightforward, but at times quite literary.
Best thing about it: Fascinating details about the culture and way of life, especially on the criminal side. News to me!
Worst thing about it: There is an enormous cast of characters and it can be hard to keep track.
Audiobook insights: On the positive side, the narrator is great, especially when shifting between Kiwi, Indian, and French accents. On the negative side, unless you are familiar with Indian and Arabic names, it can be tough to keep track of all the characters; I think it would be easier to see the names in print. Also, the audiobook is (gasp) abridged, which I did not know when I bought it, and may have contributed to my name confusion.
Final thoughts: A solid read, but a big investment (the printed book, I understand, has some 900 pages). Unless you’re into epics, don’t even try.
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi
If you’re like me, the word “harem” is inherently fascinating. But if you’re like me, you’re thinking about some kind of sex palace with hundreds of hot chicks dressed like Princess Jasmine. In Dreams of Trespass, Mernissi is quick to distinguish between “imperial harems” (the sex palace with the Jasmines) and “domestic harems,” which are basically Islamic homes in which women are more or less permanently cloistered. Domestic harems haven’t captured the Western mind in quite the same way as their imperial counterparts, but as Mernissi reveals, they are plenty fascinating in their own right. I read Dreams of Trespass in college and it’s always stayed with me—so much that I wanted to re-read it for my first A Book From Every Country selection.
In this memoir, feminist writer and sociologist Fatima Mernissi describes what it is like to grow up in a home where, simply put, women cannot go outside. But this particular frontier is only the most obvious of the many that Mernissi must confront as she struggles to understand the social and religious forces that govern her young life. Don’t be thrown by the word “feminist”—while Mernissi’s critique is a given, this is no whiny sob story. Dreams of Trespass is a masterfully written exploration of both the merits and injustices of a complex world.
Story: Fascinating. Paints a vivid picture of a way of life that is almost unimaginable to a Western reader.
Writing: Just lovely.
Best thing about it: Knowing Mernissi eventually got out.
Worst thing about it: Knowing some of the others probably didn’t.